If you’d just walked in, it could have been any other night. The bar was curiously busy for a Thursday, but nothing remarkable seemed in the offing. Beer, bellies and bald patches saturated the landscape at the Sacred Heart social club. Murmurs of mundane conversation fluttered around the room and then, like a hallucination, a tall grey man in an undertaker-style coat casually wandered in holding the European Cup.

The man was Peter Withe, a former England international forward and an undisputed Aston Villa legend. Outside of Birmingham you’d be hard pushed to find someone who recognised him, but that night his appearance released inhibitions. Overalls and suits alike went rushing towards him and Tony Morley, the two men who had combined to create the goal that beat Bayern Munich in the European Cup final. Withe’s solitary strike brought the title to the second city for the first and only time and the pair had organised an evening of recollection and celebration with a replica of the famous trophy.

Withe and Morley lifted the cup, revelling in the gaze of a euphoric crowd, evoking memories of that hazy spring night at De Kuip in 1982. Thirty-one years on and 270 miles west of Rotterdam, in the Birmingham suburb of Aston — more maligned Midlands than beautiful south — the metaphorical landscape is as different as the literal manifestation.

The hundred odd Villa fans were ambushed by glorious nostalgia, but the three decades since the triumph have been littered with false dawns, boardroom struggles and mediocre performances. Those of a claret and blue persuasion can count themselves relatively lucky as the affluent relations of the city. An incredible League Cup win apart, Birmingham City’s recent history has been pretty nondescript, while West Bromwich Albion have been average at best and disastrous at worst since the halcyon days of Cyrille Regis and the ‘Three Degrees’.

The season before their European Cup triumph, Villa had wrestled the league title from the hands of Bob Paisley’s mighty Liverpool. The charismatic Ron Atkinson had led his expansive West Brom side to fourth place in the First Division, while the Blues commanded a respectable position in the top-flight. Despite the recession, there was something of a renaissance happening in Birmingham. The buoyant atmosphere was captured perfectly by the urban legend about Duran Duran being signed by EMI at the notorious Rum Runner club on the same night Villa first climbed to the top of the league in 1980. Collective jubilation has been in short supply since. 

So what is it about the Second City and football? With a population surpassed only by London, and proud footballing history, why hasn’t Birmingham been able to dominate the scene like Manchester and Liverpool? In the words of Dave Woodhall, editor of the Aston Villa fanzine Heroes and Villains, “It seems that in Birmingham we never punch our weight in anything.”

The journey from Moor Street station to Birmingham City’s Wast Hills training ground is not particularly long but the scenery en route encapsulates the diversity of the city. The first major landmark is the Edgbaston cricket ground, surrounded by trees, grassy knolls and the sort of picturesque townhouses normally associated with upmarket seaside towns. The area neighbouring the training facility is equally beautiful, if slightly more affluent at first sight, as townhouses are replaced by detached manors, partially and purposefully hidden from view by hedges, trees and imposing iron gates. Sandwiched between the two suburban havens, however, is the seemingly endless vision of boarded-up shops, broken windows and abandoned houses.

Richard Beale comes bounding into the reception area of the training ground offering a warm smile and a firm handshake. He has the aura of a man who loves his job and so he should. At just 31, he was appointed as Birmingham City’s reserve team coach and he has retained an important role as head of the development squad.

In full City training attire, he offers a tour of the complex, and his passion for the city and the football club shines through in all he says. He finally sits down, leaning in, and his thoughtfulness is apparent from the outset. “In Birmingham there’s a very competitive market because you have City, Villa, West Brom, Coventry and Wolves all fighting for the same kids,” Beale said. “Now every single club picks up players from the inner city. There are a lot of deprived districts in Birmingham where youngsters have the hunger, the drive, and the determination. They grow up with the culture of seeing players from their area succeed. They might not have represented England, but a lot of people from this area have carved out a successful career in football.”

Beale believes the quantity and quality of clubs in the area demonstrates the city’s footballing prowess. The Birmingham County FA lists over 4,500 in the locality, while the academies of the professional teams are nationally admired. Birmingham City have become adept at cultivating local talent like Nathan Redmond and Mitchell Hancox, although a focus on youth is a policy largely enforced by financial problems restricting new signings, while Aston Villa’s Bodymoor Heath academy was voted as the nation’s best in 2012.

Since the hallowed year of 1966 only two players from the city have become England regulars, but Beale responded to that statistic by pointing out that Birmingham is responsible for a large proportion of top flight players: London and Liverpool are the only two cities to produce more Premier League footballers between its inception in 1992 and 2011.

Darius Vassell and Joleon Lescott are the two Birmingham-born players to make over 20 appearances for their country after 1966. Vassell’s 22 caps were all won while he was playing for the club he joined as a boy, Aston Villa. The forward was a regular during the reign of Sven-Göran Eriksson, who liked to use his pace and movement from the bench against tiring opposition.

The 32 year old agreed that the region is not short of talent, but he is concerned about the attitude adopted at youth level, referring to an inferiority complex he experienced as a youngster at Villa. “Take Manchester United, for example, a club known for honing talent through their youth systems year after year,” he said. “I’m not actually sure how much is local talent. What I am sure of is that just by being associated with such a big club from an early age brings what I would call ‘responsibility of performance’. That is to assume it’s much easier to exercise the actions of pride when there is something greater to be proud of. My youth team coaches would go crazy to hear me say this but I can remember playing against teams like United and our general team perception was that we were probably going to lose.”

His admission is as depressing as it is candid. Granted, Manchester United are a formidable force at any level, but how can such a celebrated club as Villa nurture such an indifferent attitude? Perhaps this apathetic mentality is symptomatic of a city starved of success. Birmingham, of course, is the cradle of professional football. A statue of William McGregor, the founder of the Football League, can be found adjacent to Villa Park’s Holte End. The Scottish pioneer moved to the city in 1870 to find work and attached himself to the club, his effigy immortalising the footballing tradition of the area. 

The West Midlands was a dominant force in the football of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Between 1887 and 1920 Villa won six league titles and six FA Cups, WBA won the cup five times before 1968, while Wolverhampton Wanderers were champions three times in the 1950s. Birmingham City became the first English team to contest the final of a European tournament (the 1960 Fairs Cup), but the sixties initiated a period of decay that the region has perhaps never recovered from. Villa, City and Wolves were all relegated in the decade just as football underwent a revolution, with the allure of George Best, the shaping of Liverpool’s dynasty and the rise of mass media interest in football. It was the worst time for decline and West Midlands sides were overtaken.

“In the post-war period, the fact these clubs had such tradition helped them attract kids who wanted to play football,” lamented the late Larry Canning, another Scot who made Birmingham his home after playing for Villa. “While you’ve got poor teams the youngsters won’t want to go, and gradually you lose that tradition.”

Despite that history of success, the former Leeds and Liverpool midfielder Gary McAllister, who spent six seasons as a player at Coventry and then managed them, described the Midlands as “not a footballing area”, claiming that the supporters don’t get behind their teams as much as they do in the north. In the last five seasons Aston Villa have had noticeably fluctuating attendance averages. Over the course of the 2008-09 campaign, in which Martin O’Neill’s exuberant side pushed Arsenal for the fourth Champions League spot before finishing a respectable sixth, Villa Park was 93.9% full. Under the guidance of Alex McLeish during 2011-12, Villa finished sixteenth after battling relegation all season. As a consequence, the ground was only at 79.2% capacity.

It would be unfair to compare these statistics to those of northern giants like Manchester United and Liverpool, but to put the figures into perspective it is significant that Newcastle United achieved an average 93.1% in 2008-09 — the season they were relegated. Can Villa fans be pigeon-holed as fair-weather based on this statistic? And if so, can it be used to measure the footballing traditions and passions of the area?

McAllister reasons that supporters inhabiting the most impoverished parts of the country hold their teams in higher regard because “it makes them feel like winners for once”. He places Scotland and the north-west into this category, but statistics don’t support his claim. The unemployment rate of the West Midlands is 8.9%, while the number of people aged 16-24 out of work is one of the highest in the country. Three of the top four unemployment blackspots in the UK are in Birmingham (Ladywood, Hodge Hill and Erdington), while Ladywood is one of the poorest parliamentary constituencies in Britain.

Those statistics, like McAllister’s comments, however, are neither here nor there. Ticket prices, especially in top-flight football, have turned the working man’s ballet into a game for the middle-class. Many Aston Villa fans point to the Thatcher recession of the early 1980s as a significant reason for failure to capitalise on a period of success for the club. When Villa won the title in 1981, league attendances reached a post-war low across the nation, limiting the scope to attract new fans. With a traditionally large blue-collar support, Birmingham City also suffered during this period after the collapse of the car manufacturing industry. If anything, economic instability appears to have had an adverse effect on football in the area rather than strengthening ties.

There may be some credence in McAllister’s final reflection though, in which he questions the region’s footballing identity. Birmingham has the air of a divided city and struggles with identity in general. About one third (329,000) of the population is non-white and this multicultural environment has been the cause for much tension over the years. The right-wing politician, Enoch Powell, formerly MP of nearby Wolverhampton, delivered his infamous “rivers of blood” speech in the city in 1968, fanning the flames of racial mistrust and prejudice throughout the West Midlands. From the Handsworth riots of 1985 to the periods of discontent in 2005 and 2011, racial and social unrest has not been uncommon in Birmingham.

This tribal suspicion and hatred made its way onto the terraces during the hooligan era of the 1970s and 80s. Going to a football match would have been a terrifying prospect for those of non-white origin and, in a city like Birmingham that had a steadily growing immigrant population, a significant proportion of local citizens were alienated from the game. According to Jas Bains, author of Corner Shops and Corner Flags, the members of the burgeoning Asian population who did enjoy football were restricted to watching it on the television and, as a consequence, were exposed to the more popular clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United. As a result, very few became connected with local clubs.

This is demonstrated perfectly by the fans at the Sacred Heart social club, or more specifically, one fan. His name is Ravi, as announced on the back of his faded Aston Villa shirt. He shares many similarities with the rest of the men in the room. His waist is perhaps a little larger than he may desire and he appears to be very much on the wrong side of forty. But he is the only Asian there, which is staggering. The area where the social club and Villa Park are situated has a 56% Asian population, hinting at the barely existent relationship the biggest club in the region has with its immediate catchment area.

“Can you imagine a team today, Chelsea for example, winning the league, then winning the European Cup, all with an English backbone, and then none of those players being picked for a World Cup?” bellowed an agitated, stocky man as the hushed Sacred Heart congregation sat attentively. “It was an absolute disgrace.”

Peter Withe was the only member of that European Cup winning squad to be selected for the 1982 World Cup, although he didn’t play a single minute in Spain. It’s hard to fathom Ron Greenwood’s logic as momentum and morale are valued ingredients for tournament football. In his book Football Memories, the veteran football writer Brian Glanville revealed his own reservations about Greenwood’s selection policies. There were suggestions the former West Ham manager favoured footballers employed by ‘fashionable’ clubs. This was given weight by his treatment of Bryan Robson, who was only ever considered once he arrived at Old Trafford despite playing phenomenal football while at West Bromwich Albion.

Tony Morley, who was one of those considered unfortunate to miss out on the 1982 showpiece, has sympathy for his former teammates. “The fact Denis Mortimer didn’t get one cap while players who aren’t in the same class get 50 or 60 is a scandal,” he said. “By the time he was 21, Gary Shaw had won the league, the European Cup and the Young Player of the Year, but didn’t get a single cap either. He’d achieved more than Wayne Rooney at the same age, but when Rooney was 21 he had already represented England 35 times.”

The Birmingham-born Shaw had the world at his feet in 1982, but a devastating injury sustained a season later snatched his career away from him, and thus, any further opportunity to don the Three Lions. Mortimer, the more seasoned campaigner who captained the side to domestic and continental glory, may have felt slightly more aggrieved to miss out on the World Cup but, with competition from Glenn Hoddle, Ray Wilkins and Robson, it was always going to be difficult for him to make his mark on the global stage.

Despite enduring an anticlimactic World Cup campaign himself, Withe can still look back at a respectable England career, although he was a relatively late bloomer. He won 11 caps between 1980 and 1985 but even he felt overlooked at times. “When I won the championship at Nottingham Forest I thought I was unfortunate not to get into the squad, but I know why,” he said with a rueful shake of the head.

“Because of the cockney bastard press!” was the instant response from a stern-looking man in the front row. 

“No!” Withe replied emphatically. “It’s because Brian Clough didn’t get on with Don Revie!”

Thoughts of a Clough versus Revie stand-off lightened the atmosphere temporarily, but Withe’s admission opened up an important discussion about the complexity of international management and the politics of player selection. Is it reasonable to suggest that England coaches are more inclined to select players dominating the back pages and, in turn, does that highlight a geographical prejudice in the media? “Sometimes it may seem the southern press favour you if you play for Tottenham or Arsenal, but does that mean you have more chance of playing for England?” he continued with a more serious tone. “Well, I think in the end if you play well enough then they can’t ignore you all the time.”

And ignore them they don’t, history proves. The mood in the room has become one of indignation, but no one has mentioned that Aston Villa have been home to more England internationals than any other club. It could be argued that many of those caps were won pre-war, but players like Gareth Southgate (42 caps), Gareth Barry (29) and Vassell represented their country a significant number of times while donning the claret and blue, while Ashley Young, Darren Bent and Stewart Downing all played in England’s 2-0 win over Wales in March 2011 even as Villa were fighting against relegation under Gérard Houllier. While James Milner also became an England regular at Villa and Jack Butland played for England while on the books of Birmingham City. 

There needs to be a distinction made, however, between deliberately ignoring the merits of football in the region and the subconscious filtering of information to accommodate the traditional giants that sell the most newspapers. Ultimately, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold on to ambitious players if they feel that staying in Birmingham limits their chances of winning honours and competing at international level. In recent years, Barry and Milner have left Aston Villa for Manchester City, while Ashley Young has gone to Manchester United, despite helping the club to one of its most fruitful periods of the Premier League era. Losing players of that calibre makes building a squad capable of success a remote possibility and a vicious circle ensues. But that is not a new notion.

“I wish I’d gone as well,” Cyrille Regis said regretfully, breaking eye contact for a moment. “You get to the point where you really want to reach the next level.” Born in French Guiana, Regis spent most of his young life in London before being spotted by West Brom, prompting a move to the West Midlands. He is blessed with a quiet charisma and talked passionately about the game. “When I was playing in the seventies and the eighties it [the Midlands] was buoyant. Almost every club was in the top flight and every three or four weeks there was a local derby. Now the majority of teams in the area are out of the Premier League and there’s nothing happening.” 

His former coach, Bobby Gould, attributes this period of dearth to an “apathy” in the region towards football, suggesting players yearning to progress tend to “outgrow the area”. Now a successful agent, Regis, who won the FA Cup with Coventry in 1987, concurs and also points to the reputation and aesthetics of Birmingham as being detrimental in terms of keeping existing players and enticing new targets to local clubs. “Birmingham has got no glamour,” he said with an unapologetic shrug of the shoulders. “All the foreign boys want London, Manchester and Liverpool. These cities have huge football clubs on the world stage and a massive ripple effect in the whole community. We’re in the doldrums and we’ve been there for lots of years.”

As recently as 2011, a TripAdvisor survey exposed Birmingham as the most boring and least romantic place to visit in Europe. In contrast, the New York Times recommended the city in their “Top 20 Places to Visit” in 2012. Despite being home to the state-of-the-art Bullring Shopping Centre, a world-renowned concert venue in Symphony Hall and the sights, sounds and tastes of the Jewellery Quarter, Broad Street and Balti Triangle, the stigma of the treacle-thick accent and the perceptions of the area as an industrial wasteland tend to stick. “In terms of people saying, ‘Let’s go to Birmingham, it’s a great lifestyle there,’ — yeah right!” Regis laughed. So that doesn’t help when trying to sell the place to footballers.”

“The whole place [Villa Park] was crying out for leadership and guidance and I eventually tired of the complacency there. Villa had a tremendous potential and still have but I am not sure how it can be realised.”

Danny Blanchflower

Being the boss can be complicated, but it appears Julie Nerney has it down to a fine art. A serial entrepreneur, she is the CEO of 14 separate companies and a highly respected name in organisational development and strategy. Born and bred in Birmingham, Nerney is a proud Aston Villa fan, but she remains frustrated about the governance of her club, and her birthplace in general. “There has been a real lack of leadership in the city,” she said. “The council has always been beset by a lot of problems. It’s struggling to find its new economy, and there doesn’t seem to be a firm, driven, dynamic direction.

“Birmingham has tried to reinvent itself, but has done it in a very patchy fashion. In contrast, the changes to Liverpool since it won the European Capital of Culture bid in 2002 have been amazing. It has done more in four years than Birmingham has tried to do in 30.”

Periods of economic uncertainty and social unrest in the seventies and eighties instigated a tide of rash, thoughtless redevelopment that did little to improve matters. Arguably, it did the opposite and inflicted physical and psychological trauma upon the city. This is, in part, where the stereotypes started and Nerney, who grew up in the city during the era of industrial decline, confessed that it was like living in a “vat of concrete”.

Liverpool, like Birmingham, went through a fractious period in the seventies after the deterioration of the docks caused mass unemployment and fiscal instability. However, Liverpool has since managed to build a reputation based on civic pride and impressive infrastructure, culminating with the European Capital of Culture victory, in which it beat Birmingham to the crown.

The former US president Bill Clinton once labelled Birmingham “an astonishing jewel of a city”, while the Independent claimed that “culturally, Birmingham has done more for the world than Milan, Venice, Marseille and Frankfurt combined.” So why the lack of universal recognition?

“The council does nothing for the city — period,” raged Trevor Fisher, the author of Villa for England and member of the Socialist Education Association. He is convinced Birmingham’s “abysmal public image” is brought on by an indifferent approach by local government. “There isn’t a coherent strategy for promoting the city,” he said. “The football clubs just reflect the wider malaise.” It’s a theory Julie Nerney subscribes to: “When you talk about leadership of the city you think about leadership of the clubs. I know there’s controversy over the Glazers, but through the Sky era when the Premiership was formed Manchester United had a really steady leader in Martin Edwards. They saw what was coming and they got on with it. We (Villa) were too busy fighting with Doug Ellis.” 

Few can divide opinion among the Aston Villa faithful like Sir Herbert Douglas Ellis. His association with the club goes back to 1968 and in two separate stints as chairman he has never been too far away from controversy. Many laud him for keeping Villa in good economic shape by refusing to pander to the baying crowd, but there is a significant proportion that loathes him for a perceived acceptance, even an embrace, of mediocrity in order to balance the books. Brian Little spent three and a half years working with him when he was the manager at Villa Park and he becomes animated just at the mention of his former employer. “I like Doug, I really do,” he said jovially, “his negotiating skills were incredible. He used to wear people down by boring them with his fishing stories and telling them that he invented the overhead kick.”

There’s an identifiable gratitude on Little’s part for the man who gave him the opportunity to coach the team he loves. Their association was a fruitful one, as two top-five finishes and a League Cup were delivered under their combined stewardship. But the Geordie, who originally joined Villa in 1969 as an apprentice, concedes the man they call ‘Deadly’ became too challenging a character to work with. “In the end I just got tired of him,” he said. “If you achieve something there, you get to a point where you can’t really push on. He wore me out and I had to go.”

Those who opposed Ellis pinpoint two crucial periods they believe sealed the club’s fate. The first is his dismantling of the squad that won the League and European Cup in successive years. Within three years of that glorious night in Rotterdam, the backbone of the team — Tony Morley, Peter Withe, Dennis Mortimer, Gordon Cowans and Des Bremner — was sold and, as a result, Villa succumbed to relegation in 1987. It should be noted that Ellis had relinquished control in 1979 and only took up the reins again in 1982. The team’s most successful period of modern times occurred without him and many supporters will tell you that is no coincidence.

The second point is the direction the club took when football became big business. Neil Moxley, the Daily Mail’s Midlands football expert, believes Villa missed an opportunity during the inception of the Premier League “when the outlay wasn’t that high”: “With investment they could have been one of the top sides. They did float on the stock market, but a lot of money was wasted on transfers, especially during the reign of John Gregory.”

Dwight Yorke, Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu were sold for a combined £26.6 million, but the money was spent on players like Steve Watson, Steve Stone and Boško Balaban, who weren’t of a similar standard. Gregory, who led the team to the summit of the league for a brief period in 2001, later said he wasn’t backed sufficiently. “I felt Doug wasn’t prepared to take that little bit of a financial gamble,” he claimed. 

John Samuels, author of The Beautiful Game is Over, suggests that while Manchester United and Arsenal were “brand-building” by signing glamorous players, Villa didn’t follow suit and thus failed to appeal nationally and internationally. The local historian and third generation Villa supporter Professor Carl Chinn also acknowledged that the club didn’t capitalise on their local catchment area in the working-class parts of Birmingham, or even the wider area of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, which severely hindered any attempts to create a viable brand. “The club’s leadership became remote and failed to bring in fans,” Chinn said. This changed to an extent following the takeover by Randy Lerner in 2006. The American, along with the charismatic Martin O’Neill, brought optimism back to the Trinity Road. A substantial investment in the playing squad was reflected by admirable results on the pitch as the club fought for Champions League qualification. Off the pitch, Lerner began to strengthen ties with disaffected supporters, notably spending £4 million to restore the revered Holte pub. The love affair appeared to end, though, in 2010, the year Lerner last gave a press conference at the club. O’Neill left and, after failing to qualify for Europe’s premier competition, Villa were saddled with players on high salaries: wages accounted for 88% of turnover at the end of 2009-10. A disjointed strategy in terms of coaching recruitment and player identification has seen the club battle against relegation ever since, even if the young players being brought through by Paul Lambert offer some hope.

While the Villans had one dominant patriarch in Ellis for so long, their cross-city rivals Birmingham City had a series of dubious owners. When David Sullivan and the Gold brothers, David and Ralph, first pitched up at St Andrews after the ambitious Karren Brady cajoled them into investing in football, what they found was a club on the brink. A 23-year-old Brady found the sale of Birmingham City advertised in the Financial Times and admitted she was “more disgusted than disappointed” when she took a closer look. Birmingham was then under the control of the Kumar brothers, who made their money in clothing, and the era was credited as the worst in the club’s history. The Blues were competing in the Third Division by this point, regularly playing in front of 6,000 or so supporters. There was little investment in the playing staff and the ground was falling into disrepair.

City’s problems really began with the Kumars’ predecessor, Ken Wheldon, a local businessman who entered football as Walsall’s chairman before taking over at St Andrews in the mid-1980s. His severe economising and a few poor judgments brought the club to the edge of a financial abyss, so close to extinction that when his phone rang he “pretended to be the caretaker in case a creditor was calling”. 

Sullivan and co altered the scene beyond all recognition after their 1993 takeover as a significant stadium renovation was followed by promotion and consolidation in the Premier League under Steve Bruce. However, all the good work completed by the current West Ham United owners is in danger of being undone by the subsequent supremo, Carson Yeung. A charge of money laundering has been hanging over the head of the Hong Kong businessman since June 2011 and the club has been in financial turmoil as a result.

But what makes football club owners in the region any different to other parts of the country? “Clubs are run by business people and West Midlands business has tended to be backward, traditionalist, resistant to new ideas,” Bryn Jones, who played for Wolves, told John Samuels in The Beautiful Game is Over. “There was complacency, a resistance to change and they lost out.” Supporting this theory is the city’s general resistance to change, highlighted by the uneasy shift from a reliance on manufacturing to the services industry.

That explanation is not necessary applicable in the present day. While City face the harrowing prospect of administration and Randy Lerner’s distance from Villa seems more apparent, the most stable and innovative chairman in the city is WBA’s Jeremy Peace, born in the West Midlands. It’s no coincidence that the current England manager, Roy Hodgson, and FA director of elite development, Dan Ashworth, were both head-hunted at West Brom, as Peace rebuilt the club on principles of financial responsibility, astute scouting and forward planning. Unfortunately, the nature of the Premier League dictates that mediocrity is the best a club like West Bromwich Albion can achieve.

At the moment, this is the biggest challenge to the clubs in Birmingham in terms of delivering tangible success. Villa had the greatest opportunity to attain a long-lasting period of prosperity but when that was lost, so was the region’s best chance to return to the glories of a century ago. Only vast investment on a Manchester City-like scale will enable a club from the city to compete at the top table of the game. Until then, they can only lament missed opportunities, poor decisions and try to achieve the maximum they can with current resources.

Birmingham’s general status as the Second City can be argued with legitimacy, but its standing in the football world is second-rate and, regrettably for the natives at the Sacred Heart club and beyond, that suggests that the European Cup replica paraded by Peter Withe may be the last piece of major silverware to grace the city for a very long time.